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Written by Darien Davis for lostVHS


With characters gazing into the camera from the off the camera is perhaps the most dangerous character in Punishment Park, Peter Watkins’ 1972 harrowing lament on the Vietnam war and post-McCarthy repression of youth. The film is set in the desert, taking place in a totalitarian court operating under the artifices of democracy, cutting between depositions more tantamount to interrogation and the narrator’s camera following alleged felonies who have chosen a three day hike through Punishment Park over a jail time stint.

The film is almost entirely deadpan save for the climactic hysteria during the last act however its documentary style serves as a lynchpin to a seething atmosphere of hopelessness and unease. With its deadpan narration, similar in tone to the later BBC nuclear dystopian Threads, it is understandable how much it was reviled and likely feared by moderates and pro-Nixon supporters alike, contributing to its unofficial ban upon its release. It hasn’t lost any of its intensity, however what is telling is that the vitriol it conveys is a cut above that found in similarly themed films dealing with the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is perhaps most interesting when viewed within the context of what has changed and, with the advent of Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, what hasn’t.

What ages and undercuts the film most is its obvious polemic intentions, mostly exemplified by the archetypal stereotypes on both sides of the meted punishments. Notwithstanding, its bleak documentarian style offers up a retort to the more sentimental and sensationalist anti-war films to come out of the Vietnam era. At its heart lies a curious conceit concerning the gameshow like function of the park, allegedly broadcast to a world beyond the desert that is never seen; if The Running Man combined its nihilism with brutal realism it would be the younger brother to Punishment Park. With its combined intent, atmosphere and concerted yet lo-fi visual Super 16mm immediacy, Punishment Park is a rewarding yet harrowing viewing. Like the park it holds no prisoners and challenges the viewers’ own moral, ethical and political foundations.

VHS Rating: ★★★★★

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